My visit to BETT 2017

One of the highlights in the eLearning calendar is the BETT show in London which happens in the last week of January every year.  I usually try and send one of my team down each time to see what the latest ideas are and direction educational technology is heading.  This year we all got to go courtesy of us coming runner up in the business support team of the year in the college’s annual awards.  So it was a 5am start for me and my team on our journey to the capital.

The show takes up one whole side of the Excel Centre at London’s docklands and has over 250 stands showing off anything from interactive whiteboards to the latest advances in VR and 3D printing.  It was that large that just walking down the main concourse from one end to the other to get to the entrance took the best part of 5 minutes.

Day 1

One our first day we started at one end of the show and had a cursory glance at each stand, making a mental note of what we wanted to concentrate on for day two.  6 hours later we had got to the other end. We had a list of about 20 stands which we wanted to go back to and find out more.  We also had the chance to see a few demonstrations and talks from people through the day.

Students and their teacher talking about using GSuite in their school

One of those was at the Google stand where a teacher and his two students were talking about how they have moved completely over to Google GSuite and that it is run in conjunction with the student cohort.  It was such a powerful talk about how by letting students help to manage critical infrastructure they can give great feedback and push forward the IT and eLearning agenda. The two students in the photo had created extra applications sitting on top of the Google Suite for their own school because they saw it as a need for students.  This forward thinking really brought home to me the advantages of collaborating with students rather than providing them with a prescriptive package of software.

After we walked around some it was time for another session from Google,  this time about Classroom.  The session was a real eye opener.  The three of us had signed up to it hoping to get a sneak peak of some new features that were maybe in the pipeline.  Although there were no new features shows, there were a few takeaways that we saw.  Firstly, it was great to see the teacher who was demoing classrooms so enthusiastic about the package. She’s definitely drank the Google  Kool-aid but it was infectious.  Secondly we got to use some Acer Flip 11 chromebooks which are very nice.  They are able to turn the screen over and be used as a tablet. (Note to self.. Get one of the new ones when they come out next month).  But the biggest memory I have of that session was a particular teacher who couldn’t believe that Google were making the whole suite available to schools for free.  After each feature was shown, he would put his hand up and say

“and this is free?”

Because we have had G Suite at our college for a little under 2 years now, its easy to forget how incredible this package is and that we don’t have to pay for it.

By the time we got to the hotel for the evening we were all completely tired and worn out but looking forward to day 2 to go and have a more details look at what was interesting.

Day 2

Once again, after a 5 minute walk down the centre of the Excel we arrived at the entrance to the show floor.  But this time we knew where we wanted to go.  Our first stop was extremely busy so while we were waiting we made a badge out of an LED, a battery and some copper wire.  This was a smart idea as while we were creating this the people at the stand were talking to us about what the Pi could do.  I made a mental note about bringing this to our demo tables at events in the college.  When it has quietened down it was off to  the Raspberry Pi stand.  The thing which caught my eye was the PiTop.

These are fully functioning computers which are available to schools in kit form.  They get the Pi and some ‘hats’ – module which allow to the Pi to do different things such as make noise or make use sensors, a 7″ LCD screen and either a desktop or laptop enclosure like the ones above.  The students then put it all together, install the operating system and have a computer which they can learn to code with.  What is even better is that they only cost just over £120 each.

Winding our way around the show floor past 3D printers and the many laptop storage companies we come to Tynker.  Their booth had 2 Parrot Drones hovering around it, and being a bit of a Drone junky i made my way to see what was going on.  They have a product which allows students to code and control mini drones such as the Parrot mambo through an iPad app.  all the parts of a program are made as jigsaw pieces that are snapped together to form programs.

Tynker Drone controller program interface

the students can then change the parts in white boxes to create their own programs and then compete to fly their drone against other students.  This is a great way to introduce coding to students to make it fun and it’s something that I would love to have a go at myself.

Next on the list was the Microsoft Learning Centre where I sat in on a demo of OneNote Classroom.  I’m still trying to get my head around what make it more than a digital PukkaPad, which is no bad thing, but i just don’t see how it can yet rival applications such as Moodle and Google Classroom effectively.

As they day was drawing to a close I reflected on what a year it has been in the eLearning world and what some of the trends are.  There seemed to be a lot less stands showing off interactive whiteboards this year and more large touch displays for classrooms- Is this the death of the whiteboard as the march of progress leaves them behind?  Chromebooks are not dying but are growing in popularity.  My last attendance at BETT was in 2013 and I found it hard to find a Chromebook anywhere on the show floor.  This year, practically all the computer makers had their own versions on display.   They are also becoming more integrated and many of them have tablet capabilities added. Finally could this be

the year that VR starts to take off in the classroom.  There were at least a dozen vendors at the show with headsets and applications taking advantage of VR and AR.  The best and highest impact of these was a company creating immersive applications based around health education.  I’ll be keeping an eye on this for the future.  As always though, it was Google which stole the show in getting noticed with their product.


In the main concourse was a vending machine which gave out free Google Cardboard glasses when you tweeted it.  So like any good FE eLearning person we went round a couple of times to get some to show off back at college.


eLearning is not just computers…

The thing that demotivates me most about my job in elearning is when I go to show teachers how to use technology in the classroom I get this response.

This is good but I don’t have time for this stuff

Now, i’m not saying that all teachers have this stance but there is a train of thought in some areas of the education sector from a number of teachers that eLearning is doing the same thing just using computers and websites.  They never did it 5, 10 or 15 years ago and they were fine so why do we need it now.

Isn’t teaching the art of passing knowledge on to the next generation? As each cohort of students goes out into the workplace, technology has shifted.  I remember being at college in the early 90’s and having to find something to do to fill in my day and I decided that I’d do the RSA typing exams.  I didn’t think it was that important at the time but in todays world its vital that i can touch type so that my productivity is kept high.  A lot of todays students are already coming to college being able to touch type because they have grown up with technology.

The statement “the youth of today are all tech savvy” is a myth but there are many more students who are than there were 5,10 or 15 years ago. So why do teachers expect that the methods that they used back then are still as relevant and the best way to teach?

Looking at eLearning as just computers is like looking at a 3 star Michelin meal and just saying its potatoes and beef, its how you use it that makes the difference. In my mind ‘eLearning’ is not being able to use a whiteboard properly or even putting your powerpoint resources on the VLE, it is being able to leverage technology to enhance the experience for your students.  This in turn lets your students develop other skills such as critical thinking without being hand-held by the teacher at every step.

Budgets are being squeezed in the FE sector every year and teachers work is getting harder and harder as class sizes expand.  Wouldn’t it be great if there was something that the teacher could use the make their life easier?  This is where elearning comes in.

I’m working on a project at the moment which aims to automate the teaching and feedback of classes which in turn releases the teacher to work on more interesting things than just marking papers.  In this case we’re using moodle, which is my VLE of choice, to create lessons where the teacher can start a cohort of students on a learning journey.  It pulls in videos from youtube, activities from sites like Khan Academy, and polls using things like poll anywhere all into a single package which walks the student through a concept or task.  It checks the students progress at points through the lesson and gives feedback automatically based on their answers.  If they need more help it sends them to other areas. For a teacher it takes about an hour to create this lesson as they will already have most of the content and concepts to deliver the teaching anyway.  But then look at how this has enhanced the teacher.  In a class of 30 students the teacher can give this one activity out and all 30 students are doing it without having to ask questions of the teacher every 5 minutes. This lets them concentrate on the 2 or 3 students who are really struggling with the ideas and not diminishing the teaching for the rest of the group.  Lets even let them do this activity at home where the teacher isn’t available and then when they are in class they can concentrate on putting the concept into practice.

This is where elearning can transform teaching.  Lets take the mundane learning out of the classroom so that when the students are with their peers they can put what they have learned to the test and run sessions where they can discuss and enjoy the transfer of knowledge.

As a byproduct of this, as your students leave college and move into industry, you as the teacher have already made the use of technology an everyday thing so when they encounter it in the real world they are ready to do their jobs without worrying about the world moving on.




A journey from LMS to PLN

I’ve been working for the college for almost 18 years and for the past 9 of those I’ve been the LMS developer and administrator.  I’ve taken Moodle from being a web application that a few teachers used to being a mainstay of the college network.  In September 2016 every full-time course at the college had a moodle counterpart that teachers could use.

At the same time, the learning management tools have moved on.  I touched on this last year about how moodle needed to change to almost become the landing page for learning rather than the behemoth of LMS applications.  Yesterday I was delivering training on how to use the VLE to accept student submissions and personalise their learning journey through a topic.  This got me reflecting on my own journey through trying to learn something and wondering if I would use such a large application in my studies.

About 6 years ago i first heard the term Personal Learning Networks (PLN) and it seemed as though it wasn’t sure what it meant but that it was definite that it didn’t mean a single application like Moodle or Blackboard.

So, back to yesterday and i’m sat in a classroom with 15 other members of staff and i’m working my way through explaining how to create a moodle lesson when one of the teachers asks me how to provide help to a student who still doesn’t get the concept. This made me think how I would go about getting more information on something I was struggling with.  Probably the first thing I would do would be search around on youtube to see if there are any videos which expand on the concept.  Then i’d probably ask on twitter if anyone could answer my question.  This got me back to thinking about the PLN. For me a PLN is not the same thing all the time.  I enjoy learning about how people learn so I like to read blogs from people such as Hannah Tyreman and Scott Hibberson to get ideas about how to get myself focused to learn things.  But I also use applications such as twitter to find out information and ask questions of my peers around software development; I use technical forums and youtube videos to get in depth tutorials and guides on how to do achieve my learning goals. In fact the only website that could be classed as a LMS that I use frequently is to watch full courses on things I am interested in learning, but I still go back to the other applications to ask around the edges of the content.

It is apparent to me that the age of the large LMS is coming to an end and the best application to use to learn is that thing that helps you the most when you need it.  We can all add quizzes and lessons to Moodle until the end of time but if you as a student want to ask a question in that moment, then twitter or Facebook is going to give you the answer a lot better than pre-planned content that doesn’t provide the solution there and then.  This does bring up the question of how do you know what you learn on the internet is correct?  Well this is a whole other issue and during the last few months of 2016 when the buzzword was Fake News it is something that we need to educate ourselves on.

So for me, the answer to What is a Personal Learning Network is

Anything that helps you to learn how you want to learn and when you want to learn.

Is Education ready for wearable technology?

Every few years technology pushes on into new areas and transforms the possibilities of how we can interact with it. Think back to 2007 before the iPhone came out and made smartphones ubiquitous in students hands; it was unheard of that students could log on to the internet anywhere and at anytime.  I remember being at college and having the joy when I was able to use a Apple Macintosh computer for the first time.  It seems the more we advance the faster we change our way of working.  And even the most highly regarded tech visionaries get it wrong sometime.  Steve Jobs famously said that nobody wanted a larger phone because you couldn’t get your hand around it.  Fast forward to today and some of the biggest selling smartphones such as the iPhone 6S and the Galaxy 7 are large format.

Virtual Reality
A virtual Reality pod of the late 90’s

My first job was working in a shop with a virtual reality game.  The user stood in a pod and wore a massive headset and was able to walk around a room where the graphics were no better then the ones in the video for Money for Nothing.  It was a flash in the pan idea and after a few months those machines were taken out of the shop again.  That was 12 years ago.

Today we have a better experience by using our mobile phones and cardboard glasses that we can take around with us.  Many of us have smartwatches which which allow us to find out what is happening in the world by just raising our wrists.  But with all this technology is it possible to transform learning away from the desktop and onto something a lot more interactive and mobile?  I think that we need to look at it as two classes of category – enhanced reality and and wearable technology.

I use the term enhanced reality as a merge between virtual and augmented.  The latest craze at the moment is Pokemon Go where you can walk and point your camera around the real world and find virtual Pokemon to add to your collection.  This is possibly the biggest mass market hit to date of how using basic technology, your phone’s camera and GPS, and virtual items (Pokemon) can be used to create a new form of entertainment.

Can this idea be used in education though?  Imagine a history field trip to London.  As the students walk through the city they can point their phones at buildings and on their screen they get videos showing what happened at that spot during The Great Fire of London.  Or as they walk past The Houses of Parliament the GPS in their phones recognises where they are and plays speeches by important politicians.  With applications such a Layar for iOS devices, the lecturer can set up important information ahead of time and then let the students hunt for it out in the real word brining the learning alive.  No more reading about it in a text book in the class.

Google_Cardboard_VRMoving on from the days of the static VR pod, lets see how we can use virtual reality in education.  Google Cardboard is a small set of goggles which cost very little to purchase and you place a smartphone within them and it can display specially created videos as 3 dimensional.  The Accelerometer that is within the phone can also tell the orientation of the wearer and allow them to view all around them.  Imagine that in a lesson they wanted to be able to have a virtual tour of an art gallery to look at the paintings and art contained within.  Well, they can do that from their classroom using and app such as Art Gallery VR from Google Play.  Currently the Louvre in Paris has 360 degree walk throughs on their website, but soon you will be able to put on your cardboard and walk through the gallery just as though you were there.  These few examples are a great way to bring a different experience into the classroom.

Another potential transformative example of technology is the smartwatch.  I have one on my wrist for 16 hour a day.  It is collecting data on how much exercise I take and what my pulse is throughout the day.  It provides me details of the latest news around the world. apple-watch-hr Soon you are going to be able to take photos and videos from your wrist.  How then can we use this in education?  This one is a little more tricky.  The obvious example would be in the fields of sport and health.  In your sport lessons, all your students would be able to monitor and share their heart rates and other metrics with each other and the teacher to see how exercise impacts their fitness.  After their activity they could collate all that information back in the classroom to use as data for assignments etc.

Is this kind of technology ready for the mainstream?  In my opinion not yet, but looking forward to the classroom on 2020 I don’t think it is unreasonable to think that instead of a class being sat around desktop computers looking at pictures or images, they will be out in the world pointing their phones at buildings for information and using virtual reality to go to places they couldn’t have imagined ever visiting.  They will be up and about competing with their classmates to fill their exercise rings during the day.  As a technology champion for education, this is a time I am looking forward to.

To finish off, lets remind ourselves what the graphics of 90s virtual reality might have looked like.

If a picture paints a thousand words?

One of the joys of this job is the look on the face of a member of staff once they ‘get it’ when it comes to using technology in the classroom.  Too many times I have been to deliver a training session on Moodle or some other eLearning application and all i see are the eyes glazing over of the people who, mostly, have been told to attend by their managers.

This year we have started on a new way of training.  No longer are we putting on sessions at 3pm on a tuesday or lunch on a wednesday and expecting people to turn up.  The new ethos of our department is “We will come and train you when it suits you”  Our biggest fear of this approach was would it work?  Did people want to be trained?  The first few months of this ethos seemed to show that we had got this monumentally wrong.  It looked like people only come to technology enhanced training when they were forced to.  Our shining new example of delivery was on the backfoot.

This made us think again about how to get our message and training out to the staff.  As the saying goes A picture paints a thousand words.  Thats all well and good but how many words does a video paint?  We started filming mini interviews from those teachers who really ‘got it’ and realised that technology was just helping the staff as much as the student.  One of the first was a sports teacher Henry Bryan who loves Google.

We posted this onto our college community page and a funny thing happened.  We got a phone call from a teacher saying they had seen this and wanted to know more.  One of my staff met up with them and after 20 minutes that teacher had the same look of awe on their face at how they could do so much more with technology than they thought they could.  Then another person got in touch saying that people were using Google Classroom and it looked pretty good and how could she get help with it.

Rather than us calling people and telling them we had all this training we could give them when they wanted it, the catalyst for training came from the other teachers and staff members talking about technology and our department.  Coupled with the fact that if a teacher wants training we will go to their staff room at a time that suits them we have now been asked into a number of curriculum areas where we couldn’t even get them to open the door before hand. So our new style of training is working, we just needed to find a better way to kickstart it.

So if anyone is unsure as to whether the effort of making videos is worth it, I can say hand on heart that it has revolutionised our department. And the video above was filmed in about 2 minutes using an iPhone 6s so it wasn’t that much effort anyway. We now try and film at least one video a week highlighting how a single teacher has found technology has helped.  So if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth ten times that.

Getting people enthused in eLearning

KingdomBBCGameI have loved technology all my life.  I had my first computer when I was 5.  It was a BBC B Micro (which shows how old I am now) and I always remember the first game I ever played on it.  It was an game called Kingdom and the purpose of the game was to make sure that farmers of this little kingdom were able to produce enough grain to save the people and put some in storage in case of emergencies and stave off thieves.  Every year you would get a report of what happened and you would lose some of your people and some crops.  You won if you managed to keep your kingdom alive long enough.

What has this got to do with eLearning?  It taught me all about maths.  I learnt that if I saved x number of crops for y number of years then when the floods came around my little kingdom would be safe.  I didn’t realise at the time I was learning anything, but this was a very early kind of eLearning.  From there I got enthused about what a computer could do for me and i got the bug.  I learnt to program and create games myself all from that one time where I was having fun keeping villagers alive.

Today I work in eLearning and it saddens me that there are a lot of teachers and trainers who still don’t see the value in eLearning.  One of the biggest problems I face in my role is trying to get to teach people how to get the best out of technology.  They don’t see it as a teaching application but as a replacement for pencil and paper – Instead of writing your work on a pad of A4, you can just type it up on a word processor..  This is not what eLearning is about.  That is just a change of medium but without a change of teaching.

Getting back to my game, I used to get excited and really happy when my computer would congratulate me on keeping my little pixelated people alive through the floods.  We can do this in modern day by using open badges.  Instead of having a teacher pass out a question sheet and the students just sitting at a table with their HB filling in multichoice questions, lets create online tests for them which trumpet the fact that they have got high marks.  We’ll give them a picture to display on their profile, let their class friends see it.  I’m pretty sure that would motivate the students of today to do better. None of this is difficult – it can even make the job of the teacher easier in the long run as by using automated tests, it saves on marking for the teacher letting them concentrate on other tasks.

There is a reason why there are so many achievements on xbox or PS4 games in todays landscape; its to keep kids interested and motivated to get better at the game and brag to their friends. What is wrong with doing this with learning too?

My Mobile Learning

About 18 months ago, there was an internet buzz going around IT professionals “Whats on your Dock” This is where people all took screenshots of what was on their, mainly macbook, computer toolbars.  This was so that people could see what the professionals used and also to get a feel of what applications were popular.  Well today, i’d like to ask the question

What learning Apps are on your smartphone

This is my iPhone Education Apps Screen
my iPhone education app screen

So that is my iPhone.  Most of these apps I use on occasion, but some of them are always open on my phone.  Here is what I use and why.

This is my go to social app.  Its amazing how much I turn to twitter to ask questions and find out things.  It used to be that I would go on sites like stack exchange or Quora to ask questions, but twitter is my new answer engine.

They say that a picture can tell a thousand words.  Well what is better than a photo? Of course it is video.  We make use here of video and EdPuzzle and it takes it to the next level by being able to add questions at certain points to your and  assess what you students are learning throughout.  The app makes it so much easier to watch videos on the move.

With Aurasma you can create hotspots in the real world which when you point your phone’s camera at them can launch anything on the internet.  Think QR codes without having to look for the square.  This can be used almost as a treasure hunt or for inquisitive students looking for ‘hidden’ content.

Post-it Plus
This is a great note snapping app if you use sticky notes.  Just point your camera at your note or notes and when you tap, it takes a photo and can take the notes out of the photo to store on a board which you can then send to a number of apps.

What vine is to twitter, periscope is to youtube.  With periscope you can live stream video from your mobile’s camera to the internet and anyone can view it and comment in real time.  I have see some great short bits of learning content done through periscope.  Its really easy to use and feedback from users in real time is great.
This is a great app for creating a live ‘helpdesk’ type of service.  You know when you go to your energy website and need to talk to a customer service rep online?  Well this is what you can do with  We use it here for live online access to study assistants in the Learning Resource Centres.

This is the perfect replacement for sticky notes in lessons.  You can have a virtual sticky board and your students can all post their ‘notes’ to a single board.  The app makes it really easy for people to post comments and look at boards.

Moodle Mobile
Self explanatory really.  Our VLE at the college is Moodle and the Moodle Mobile app has a number of great features.  You can view many of the resources which teachers add to the courses.  All a students assignments or forum posts are pointed out and you can have notifications on the app.  Its still a little rough and there are things you can’t do, but its getting better all the time.

Office 365
It doesn’t matter what people say, Microsoft Office is still for better or worse the standard in office productivity applications and here at work we use it so i sometimes make use of the mobile applications. Although they don’t get the same use as most of my other apps on my phone.

Adobe CC
As a content creator, this is probably one of the most important set of apps I have on my phone.  I am a big user of Photoshop and Premiere Pro (Video editing software).  What the apps let me do is to take some of this work and use my mobile to capture content, create and alter assets and basically make my workflow more mobile.

Google Suite
These are my main apps I use for office productivity.  Google Chrome is my browser of choice on my phone and because i use Chrome on my mac, all my settings are synced between my phone and laptop.  In my work I use Google Drive as my cloud storage so with the app I can access all my work anywhere I have my phone.  I would be lost without many of the apps in this box.

As I’ve got older I’ve realised that I am no longer capable of remembering 1001 things I need to get done so Things is my GTD app of choice.  It syncs easily with my laptop and phone and can give me notifications of outstanding work and deadlines.  Really, I wouldn’t be able to get anything done on time if I didn’t use this.

So what is on your phone and are there any apps which i’m really missing out on?  I’d be interested to know if there are any apps which you couldn’t live without.

Away from the Monolith

For the past 10 years the mainstay of eLearning has been the Virtual Learning Environment.  A student goes to a class and logs onto the VLE to answer the quizzes or do their homework.  As time has moved on, the VLE has added features in that let you add video and audio to bring it upto date, but its big advantage has always been that it can ‘do anything’  Moodle, one of the most popular VLE platforms has dozens of plugins which let you add things such as drag and drop questions, wiki pages, set up forums and use live chat on your courses.  Want to have a load of pictures, you can use the picture gallery.

About six months ago, i watched a presentation by Lewis Carr about the future of the VLE and he made some interesting points about its current state.  This reminded me of another presentation a number of years ago at a conference which said that all learning would in the future be personal, there would be no need to create content for the class and it could all be crowdsourced – The end of the college system as we knew it.  Well thankfully this hasn’t come to pass.  Colleges are still needed and we still use the VLE as the main point of call for eLearning.  But as Lewis pointed out, the VLE needs to change to survive the next few years.

Here are our college, we have brought Google Apps for Education into the mix and use both Moodle and Google Classroom (GC) as our VLEs.  What we have found is that they have both got their uses but also their drawbacks.  If you have never used GC before, the easiest way to explain it is facebook for education.  It works as a stream of content so that, in general, each peace of content slides the next piece down.  Sure you can get your students to submit work on it, but it is more of a hub than a full blown VLE.  want to add something to your class, just drag the link from a browser and it creates an announcement that is sent out to all your students.  Of course the downside is that GC is designed to be used there an then.  This is the main difference that teachers have commented upon.

Moodle on the other hand, if you have the time and the will, you can create all your content for the year and then make it available at the time you wish for your students.  The problem is it does do everything most of what you need but none of what it does is the best of what is available.

I think there is a place for both approaches although the large monolith of the VLE has to adapt to still be of use during the next 5 year.  Over the next few weeks i’m going to be discussing how we can use the VLE as a hub for teaching and take the best of what is out there and combine the advantages of Moodle or GC to help both students and staff deliver a truly rich eLearning experience.